Monday, November 18, 2013

A Brief History of History - Colin Wells

A Brief History of History is a strange and pleasant book. Strange, perhaps, because it’s so pleasant. I mean, lots of people enjoy reading works of history—biographies, dramatic tales of war and social revolution, cozy examinations of the spice trade or the decline of rural life, mind-blowing narratives of the development of astrophysics, nostalgic examinations of the Fifties, and even histories of salt, the mandolin, and the concept of zero. But very few, I think, take more than a passing interest in the history of history.

The subject is made difficult from the get-go by the word “history” itself. We use it to refer to the past, but we also use it to describe the things we say about the past. I might equally well say I’m studying the history of the Crusades (i.e. studying its past) or that I’m writing a history of the Crusades (i.e. I’m sharing with you my take on its past). 

When we study the history of history, what we’re doing it examining the history of the various things that have been said about the past. It’s a triple regress, and I suspect few readers beyond a thin layer of academics would be interested in entering into such a fun house. (Perhaps the only thing worse would be the history of historiography: the history of the various things that have been said about the things that have been said about the past.)

But it’s to the general reader rather than the scholarly community that the author, Colin Wells, has addressed himself here. Bravo! Scholars will find the work breezy and uncritical (not quite fairly). The general reader will find it fascinating, up to a point. I was reminded more than once while reading it of another minor classic, The Lives of the Great Composers by Harold Schonberg. 

Wells is good at keeping a narrative afloat.

But here the major problem of his work presents itself. With Schonberg, we can listen to a Mozart symphony or a Wagner opera, and then read up on all the scuttlebutt surrounding the man who wrote it. (In fact, having written that sentence, I just put Mozart’s 40th Symphony on the turntable. Ah, sublime!) When we’re reading about Einhard or Guicciardini, on the other hand, or Bayle or Champollion, the question we ask ourselves time and again is, “Who the hell is that?”

This can be a problem. And if Wells happens to hit on a historian we’ve heard of—Herodotus say, or Burckhardt—our first thought may be, “Damn, I’ve always wanted to read him. I think I’ll go do that now.” Good-bye Wells.

I had that thought more than once while reading A Brief History of History. Thucydides remains a gap in my education, though I have The Landmark Thucydides right here on the shelf. Also Bede.  And Herder.

Well, there is no end to the list of the great historians I’ve never read. And Wells doesn’t shy away from bringing out not only obscure (to us) historians, but also compilations of historical fragments that no one outside the academic community has heard of. 

He seems to be especially strong on Byzantine historiography—an era closer to a black hole than anything Stephen Hawking has ever met up with face-to-face. (And yet A Brief History of Time sold millions!)

The discerning reader may have come to suspect that I myself fall somewhere between the scholar and the “general reader.” I’m no scholar, yet I do have Hume’s six-volume History of England close at hand and also Phillippe de Commynes two-volume Memoirs, an eye-witness account of the history of Burgundy in the later years of the fifteenth century. 

Wells doesn’t mention Commynes. I forgive him. Because what he has done is bring out how fascinating it can be to read histories written in times closer to the events being described than the ones we have access to today.

Undergirding any history of history is a definition of history, and Wells finds his in the first sentence of the first history ever written—The Persian Wars by Herodotus. He dwells on the fact that Herodotus, after explaining that he wanted to preserve the past from oblivion, also wanted to explain why things happened.   

“These are the researches of Herodotus of Halicarnassus, which he publishes, in the hope of thereby preserving from decay the remembrance of what men have done, and of preventing the great and wonderful actions of the Greeks and the Barbarians from losing their due meed of glory; and withal to put on record what were their grounds of feuds.” (trans. Rawlinson)

Wells notes that “to put on record” interpolates a verb that doesn’t exist in the original. He translates the final clause “and especially the reason why they went to war against each other.” Thus history’s purpose, according to Herodotus, was to preserve the glory of the past, but also to explain it. Hence the subtitle of Wells’s book is: Great Historians and the Epic Quest to Explain the Past.

Yes, but does the past really need to be explained? Do the motives of human activity ever really change? Power, domesticity, expression, love, pleasure, stability, survival, vengeance, and that quality above all others—benevolence. People love to read history because they love to make contact with superhuman examples of those things. Depending on their temperament, they may read Helter Skelter or a biography of Winston Churchill.

Wells makes a very good narrative out of a disparate and challenging collection of thinkers. A Brief History of History is a book I'm sure I could read once a year with profit. Characters such as Bruni, Dilthey, Tacitus, Procopius demand our attention, and Wells does a good job of explaining why. But there are more than a few passages in which his attempt to be breezy ends up sounding trite. For example, of the Italian poet Petrarch he writes:

Before Petrarch, people looked at the past and saw an age of pagan superstition that had been succeeded by the light of Christian revelation. Petrarch flipped this idea like a pancake: The enlightenment of ancient Greece and Rome was followed by an age of ignorant superstition in which ancient knowledge disappeared and culture decayed.

Wells seems to approve of Petrarch’s re-ordering of history, which is also a re-ordering of values. But is it sound? This is an important point, precisely the kind of issue that Wells tends to ignore. Are Christian values worthless? Are there vast stretches of time that contributed nothing to civilization?

Casting around for a richer interpretation of the relation between historical eras, I opened Benedetto Croce’s History: Theory and Practice (1913) and came upon the following passage:

…historical thought knows nothing of returns, but knows that the Middle Ages preserved antiquity deep in its heart and the Renaissance preserved the Middle Ages. And what is “humanism” but a renewed formula of that “humanity” of which the ancient world knew little or nothing, and which Christianity and the Middle Ages had so profoundly felt? What is the word ‘renaissance’ or ‘renewal’ but a metaphor taken from the language of religion? And setting aside the word, is not the conception of humanism perhaps the affirmation of a spiritual and universal value, and in so far as it is that, altogether foreign, as we know, to the mind of antiquity…  

These reflection are of a different order altogether from the ones we find in Wells’s book. They’re rooted in a command not only of historiography, but also of metaphysics, and Wells simply doesn’t possess such a background.

Yet A Brief History of History is a remarkable book all the same.The entertaining tales harbor subtleties of interpretation and judgment that Wells seldom lingers to defend. For example: "History has co-opted the ferocious post-modernists, who set themselves to drain it of meaning but only ended by presenting it with a new set of powerful tools."

The historians he choses to highlight from recent times--Natalie Zemon Davis, Peter Brown, Emmanuel Ladurie,Carlo Ginzburg--are an odd lot, none of whom carry name recognition on the order of Macaulay, Voltaire, de las Cases, or Julius Caesar. Yet I cannot help pulling my copy of Ginzburg's essay collection, Wooden Eyes:Nine Reflections on Distance, from the shelf to give it another look.

I am tempted to call Wells's effort a Quixotic one. He has read more, and knows far more about the history of history than you or I ever will. Yet he considers it worthwhile to call up names unknown to us, examine eras in history we've never given a thought to, attempting to tell the story in terms we can understand. As if we might be interested. And indeed, he does make it interesting.

At one point he writes, and it's true: "If historians downed pens right now, we could still never catch up on our reading."

No comments: